Are Catholic Schools Worth Keeping In Northern Ireland?
TWENTY-THREE years after the Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland is still not a comfortable society on its own.
Political conflicts abound. Around Easter, there was significant violence in the streets, resulting from the protests against the “Irish Sea border”.
Frequently, we hear integrated schools being presented as the answer to these divisions. “Educate them all together,” they say, “and within a generation much of the misunderstanding and animosity will disappear. “
Yet despite government support and encouragement, only 7% of students in Northern Ireland currently attend integrated schools.
Recently two top sportsmen, Andrew Trimble of rugby and Oisín McConville of GAA, spoke on the BBC show. View in favor of integrated education.
For Mr. Trimble, the answer to our social divisions is obvious.
“If someone would come from somewhere else and say, ‘You have social issues and people who don’t engage with different communities in Northern Ireland’ they would look and say, ‘Well your kids are not coming through. of time together “.
“Let’s just educate our kids and then they can do religious things on weekends or weekday evenings or outside of school hours.”
It is not surprising that many people, especially outside Northern Ireland, share this point of view.
Professor Jon Tonge, considered an expert on Northern Irish politics, offers the opposite view.
“Blaming segregated education for the vicious bigotry that too often prevails in Northern Ireland is convenient but intellectually lazy,” he says.
He points out that Liverpool has six more Catholic schools than Belfast, and “yet the city’s sectarian problems died off decades ago.”
Catholic schools in Northern Ireland are financially supported by the state.
The plethora of school types and systems undoubtedly creates costly inefficiencies.
A related debate concerns the selective education system, with transfer tests for admission to high schools at age 11.
Teachers who prepare their students for First Communion know that after the big day of celebration, these children may not be back to Mass and Communion.
The Catholic Church opposes this system, but many Catholic grammars strongly defend their status.
And what about the original purpose of Catholic schools to help parents pass the faith on to the next generation?
In the past, Catholic parents sent their children to Catholic schools and supported the practice of the faith at home.
Even when times were tough, financial sacrifices were made to support schools.
Parents were convinced that their children’s teachers, many of whom were priests or religious, were themselves faithful Catholics who strove not only to provide academic excellence to their students, but also to pass on the faith. .
Yet today, many young people abandon the practice of the faith from an early age.
Parents often don’t go to church, so the kids don’t go either.
Teachers who prepare their students for First Communion know that after the big day of celebration, these children may not be back to Mass and Communion for the foreseeable future.
For many Catholics, parents and teachers, their faith has become nominal. Church attendance may be just for baptisms, weddings, and funerals.
Even the most dedicated Catholic teachers find it difficult to teach the essentials of the faith when the family situation and the larger cultural context does not support it and is often positively hostile.
These particular problems are of course not unique to the North.
The demand for Catholic schools in Northern Ireland, however, is still surprisingly high.
Parents always seem to value something in the Catholic ethos, and at least children can acquire some religious and spiritual literacy.
Perhaps later in life some embers of what they have encountered may stay with them, and they may find their way back to Church.
In light of these realities, to what extent is there a strong case for continuing efforts to maintain Catholic education in Northern Ireland?
Are there better ways that we as a Church should explore to support parents who want to pass their faith on to their children?
To reflect on these topical issues, the Iona Institute NI is hosting a major online conference, “Is Catholic Education Worth Sustaining in Northern Ireland” on Saturday June 12 from 11am to 1pm.
A roster of expert and engaging speakers include: Professor Francis Campbell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Notre Dame, Australia and former UK Ambassador to the Holy See; Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown; Marie Lindsay, award-winning former principal of St Mary’s College, Derry; and Professor Peter Finn, Principal of St Mary’s University College Belfast.
Tracey Harkin is a mother of eight and spokesperson for the Iona Institute NI. To register for the free “Is Catholic Education Worth Keeping in N. Ireland” conference, email [email protected] More information on www.ionainstituteni.org